Growing a community force to help prevent crime

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(Courtesy photo) The Bonner County Sheriff's Office Community Force Neighborhood Watch has grown to 700 members, with 12 volunteers, 11 of whom are pictured here, who train the watch groups across the county on starting and maintaining a neighborhood watch, home security evaluations, preventing vehicle prowling and more.

SANDPOINT — One of the oldest methods of crime prevention, neighborhood watch programs have proven successful in eliminating opportunities for criminals.

According to a 2008 United States Justice Department study, there was, on average, a 16-percent decrease in crime in neighborhood watch communities. Nationwide, watch programs have been credited with reducing the rate of burglaries as much as 77 percent, along with reducing the rate of other crimes.

The Bonner County Sheriff's Office Community Force Neighborhood Watch began about two years ago, and a year later was up to 400 members. Now, according to neighborhood watch volunteer Mary Gore, the program is 700 members strong. And as the population of Bonner County continues to grow, program volunteers are starting a spring campaign to grow the neighborhood watch force even more, Gore said.

"We are trying to hit 1,000 this year," Gore said, adding that along with the 700 members, there are 12 volunteers, 35 groups and 53 watch captains across the county. 

The volunteers are those who train individual watch groups throughout the county on starting and maintaining a neighborhood watch, home security evaluations, preventing vehicle prowling, suspicious activity logs, rural crime prevention and more.

According to a statement written by Gore, the top three crimes in Bonner County are theft, drugs and simple assault. Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler is "pleased" with the program, she wrote, and how it has decreased crime. In addition, the deputies like seeing the neighborhood watch signs on gates, posts, trees, lawns and windows of homes and businesses as they patrol the community, she wrote. The deputies said people in the program are reporting suspicious activity more often and giving better descriptions of vehicles and suspects.

"If law enforcement isn't aware of a problem, they can't help," Gore wrote. "That's why it is so important to call the sheriff's office when you see suspicious activity or a crime in progress."

The majority of the watch groups are currently located in rural areas of the county. There is less of a law enforcement presence in rural areas, and city police presence may account for less interest by people within city limits, Gore said. There are a couple of groups, however, within city limits of Sandpoint, Blanchard, Spirit Lake and Clark Fork, she said, and a meeting will be held in Priest River in May, though the exact date has not yet been determined.

Gore said the meetings are scheduled when someone is interested in starting a neighborhood watch and gets a group of neighbors together. The group will then set up a date and time with the volunteers, but anyone is welcome to attend the meeting, she said.

Anyone interested in starting a neighborhood watch group in their community is encouraged to call Sheryl Kins, administrative assistant for BCSO, at 208-263-8417, ext. 3049. The volunteers will ask about concerns and problems in the neighborhood, provide pertinent information, and neighborhood watch signs are free to those who become members.

"Once you get a neighborhood watch established, people get to know each other more, and they can plan for if there is a fire or a criminal on the loose," she said, adding it is helpful in any disaster as well, including severe weather and traffic incidents.

Another useful tool the volunteers tell people about is Nixle, which sends out alerts for those type of incidents as well. Anyone can sign up to receive the alerts at local.nixle.com/bonner-county-sheriffs-office. And, of course, she said if anyone sees anything that "doesn't seem right," report it to the sheriff's dispatch at 208-265-5525, unless it is a crime in progress or an emergency, in which case dial 911.

Mary Malone can be reached by email at mmalone@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.

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